Belfast – Dir: Kenneth Branagh

Belfast is a semi-autobiographical comedy/drama set in 1969 Northern Ireland where a family struggles to survive in the city they love.

Starring: Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill

An early graphic informs us that the date is August 15, 1969, ironically the exact same date that Woodstock is taking place at Max Yasgur’s farm and the Harlem Cultural Festival (the subject of the very excellent documentary Summer Of Soul) is happening in NYC.

But while folks overseas are grooving to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone, the residents of this working class neighbourhood are recoiling to the sound s of Molotov cocktails and grenades.

The opening sequence of Belfast, with Protestants rioting in the streets is truly one of the most terrifying and visceral action sequences I have seen in a very long time. The black & white cinematography, the extreme close ups and the kinetic editing make the viewer understand exactly what it must be like for an average family to be thrust into this kind of violence.

The family here is Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), 9 year old Buddy (Jude Hill) and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie). Branagh initially turns his focus to your Buddy who is very nearly swept away by the rioting mob…only to be saved by his mother at the last, nail-biting second.

Branagh pulls back on the tension,  putting his lens on Buddy, Ma and Pa (not sure why Will is virtually ignored) and the family dynamic. Pa wants to move the family to Sydney, Ma wants to stay.

This is a comedy/drama and the interaction between the family members and their neighbours is the kind of gallows humour that both lightens the mood and makes life bearable.

Pa has a job working in London and so is only around intermittently to help with the kids. Ma is shouldering the burden with help from Granny and Pop, who add more light relief…at least in the first half of the film.



Getting back to the filmmaker, Branagh and his crew have done an extraordinary job of bringing this time and place to life. The black and white footage breaks into colour when the family goes to the movies, escaping to cinematic heaven thanks to films and TV shows like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Star Trek and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. And so, iconic faces of stars like John Wayne, Gregory Peck and William Shatner beam in as if from outer space. Indeed…this is taking place just weeks after the moon landing and that historic event does add some interesting context to The Troubles on the ground in Belfast. And speaking of Westerns, that ol’ Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison is featured heavily in the soundtrack

This world is especially confusing and poignant when seen through the eyes of young Buddy, who desperately tries to work out the religious and political realities of the day in his 9-year-old brain.

It makes no sense to him, nor does it make sense to us today, which I’m sure is Branagh’s point.

The film isn’t perfect…I question the scene where Ma grabs Buddy and carries him back to the store to return a box of detergent he lifted while the shop is full of angry, violent rioters. Surely she could have waiting until it was safer.

But, overall, this is a moving, thoughtful and beautiful film about a time and a place that was struggling with hatred and violence.

Marty Duda


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